88-year-old Essie Shor is the kind of Yiddishe Mamma I wish I had growing up. It would certainly have given me bragging rights among those fellow children of Holocaust survivors mightily embarrassed by those distinctive blue numbers tattooed on their parents' forearms. Now, Essie Shor wasn't exactly who Sophie Tucker had in mind when singing her paean to the enduring charms of Jewish mothers, My Yiddishe Mamma. Essie's coming of age was far from the cold water flats of Manhattan's Lower East Side; it was several thousand miles away in a Europe caught up in a conflagration that would eventually consume six million human beings.
It was at the offices of the Anti-Defamation League where I first met Essie. I was giving a spiel about the documentary that had just unspooled, From Swastika to Jim Crow, (produced by my company Pacific Street Films) and suddenly I see this little old lady emerging from a crowd composed of what we endearingly call altacockers ("old farts"). She headed my way and immediately proclaimed in Yiddish accented English, "You know, during the war, I carried a pistol and rifle." My immediate thought: run that by me again? She was unfazed as my eyes rolled around but when she started talking about being a member of the fabled Bielski partisans during the war, I was sufficiently intrigued to let her continue talking. Convinced that she wasn't a run-of-the-mill yenta I responded to her request for my address because, as she put it, "I'd like to send you a book about me."
Well, the book Essie: The True Story of a Teenager Fighter in the Bielski Partisans, arrived a few days later. It was a good and compelling read despite the fact that it was self-published and chronicled her role as a young partisan struggling to stay alive while surrounded by a vicious enemy. It also gave me new respect for the unique role played by Yiddishe Mammas who offered up something more than latkes and chicken soup.
During the dark days of the Second World War, Essie did indeed pack "heat" (aka firearms) as a teenage partisan trying to give back to the Nazis a bit of the suffering they had inflicted on the Jews in her neck of the woods which was pretty horrifying. In her hometown of Novogrudek, then part of Poland, she witnessed the killing of family members and the slaughter of her neighbors, some 4,000 killed in one day -- before those that remained (700) were herded into a makeshift ghetto.
Essie was not going to stay put. Demonstrating the kind of chutzpah that was to serve her well throughout the war she escaped through a hole in the ghetto fence and made her way through the forest, hooking up with her cousins, the three Bielski brothers. She was among the first 25 to join the partisan group that would eventually to swell to 1,200.
Now the exploits of the Bielski Brothers and the Jewish partisans was brought to the silver screen by Edward Zwick in his 2008 flic, Defiance, which did amp up the dramatic volume and played with reality a bit (for instance, the partisans never directly confronted a German tank) undoubtedly to conform to a necessary Hollywood action template. While the Bielski Brigade didn't provide the kind of value-added military leverage as let's say the Viet Cong they were able to engage in the kind of hit and run skirmishes that the Germans found not only bothersome, but gallingly so, given it was Jews with guns that shot real bullets at real German soldiers.
But reality for the partisans wasn't as much combat as simply a day to day struggle to stay out of harm's way while offering fellow Jews a sanctuary from the hell that was consuming the world outside.
Living in the forest, we no longer felt like cattle, as we had in the ghetto. However, we had to move constantly. There were German soldiers looking for us everywhere, and sometimes villagers living nearby would tell them where we were.... This was a different kind of fear. We went from being caged to being hunted.
There were other Jewish partisan groups that fought throughout Nazi occupied Europe and certainly heroism wasn't in short supply when the Warsaw uprising -- the Jewish Alamo -- was in full swing and all of this highlights an enduring bit of Jewish history that often gets lost in discussions about the Holocaust. Yes, there were those who refused to go quietly into a dark night that led directly into the furnaces of Auschwitz.
All survivors of Hitler's pogrom have stories to tell and many laden with twists of fate that make for compelling drama. My grandmother, for instance, was spared from the crematorium at Auschwitz when a split second decision by a Nazi guard to let her leave the line headed for the gas chambers (after the choice was made by Dr. Mengele) and re-join the line where her daughter -- my mother -- was being directed towards the work camps. Obviously a karmic and downright cosmic moment that altered the course of both my history and that of my two children. In Essie's case, that twist involved a neighbor and friend by the name of Rae Kushner who had sought sanctuary with the group and developed a case of typhus. She was nursed back to health by her close colleague-in-arms. After the war, Rae would marry, immigrate to the U.S. and give birth to her own children. Charles Kushner, one of her three, would grow up to make his fortune in real estate and his two sons, Jared and Joshua, followed in his footsteps. Jared Kushner would eventually marry Ivanka Trump and bought that "curiously pink newspaper" otherwise known as the New York Observer.
Essie also married after the war, found her way to the Bronx, settled down, had a daughter and then got herself a substitute-teachers license and started teaching little kiddies in city elementary schools.
Essie now wants to make a documentary about herself and her experiences and I think it's a noble undertaking, after all, there's still much to be gleaned about what it means to be defiant in the face of overwhelming adversity and what better way to deliver that message than from this one very tough and outspoken Yiddishe Mamma.
Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films. He's been a contributing blogger and writer for a variety of publications including American Banker, Huffington Post and In These Times. A Pacific Street films documentary, Dressing America, the story of the Jews who created the New York garment industry (think "shmatas") has recently been acquired by WNET-13.